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Is There a Third World Within U.S.? Too Many Children Could Say Yes : Summit: The U.N. conclave focuses on the young--and also on President Bush's failure to make a real commitment. He's wasting precious time.

October 07, 1990|Marian Wright Edelman and James D. Weill | Marian Wright Edelman is president and James D. Weill is general counsel of the Children's Defense Fund

WASHINGTON — The cause of children is progressing in much of the world. We saw dramatic proof of that progress last weekend when 71 heads of state met at the United Nations for an unprecedented world summit for children--the largest gathering of national leaders in history. But we also had a dramatic disappointment: President Bush's performance.

The President made a lackluster speech that used less than his allotted five minutes. He then left for Washington while the other world leaders stayed on. Back in Washington, he joined in announcing a budget agreement shortchanging American children's health, education and other needs and showing little regard for the nation's future.

The summit, as a whole, produced some real hope for the world's children, hope that is desperately needed when millions are being killed by malnutrition, preventable diseases, war and abuse. Fifteen million children under the age of 5 die every year around the world--40,000 a day. The summit participants agreed on a specific plan to try to save as many as 50 million children this decade.

Goals include reducing child mortality in each nation by at least one-third, reducing malnutrition by one-half, raising immunization rates and assuring the earliest possible ratification by all governments of the international convention on the Rights of the Child.

U.S. children are in desperate need of real presidential and congressional leadership to reach these goals. With nearly 13 million poor children, we have a Third World within our nation One of every four U.S. infants and toddlers lives in poverty. And American children are two or three times more likely to live in poverty than those in countries we consider our peers and competitors--countries like West Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.

The United States is an underdeveloped nation in caring for its children. It has 13 million children with no health insurance. It ranks 19th among nations in preventing infant mortality and 29th in preventing low-birth-weight births. Immunization rates are declining, and measles cases have increased tenfold in the last few years.

In some respects, conditions for California's children are even worse. In recent years, California's child poverty, prenatal care, teen birth and school dropout rates have been worse than the United States' already terrible averages.

Bush's brief appearance at the United Nations barely acknowledged any of these problems. Much of it was devoted to empty rhetorical flourishes. The President did allude to the education and health goals that he, the governors and the Public Health Service have set for the year 2000. But he failed, however, to suggest that he would take any specific measures to reach these goals. And he failed to mention that the United States is moving away from many of them.

The U.S. Public Health Service goal is to reduce by more than one-third the rate of babies born too small to thrive. With some effort, this goal would be attainable, but the nation has not been making such an effort. From 1980 to 1988, the rate of low-birth-weight births actually increased, rather than decline as in prior decades. We are also moving away from the Public Health Service goal that 90% of pregnant women get prenatal care during the first three months of pregnancy.

Early prenatal care and higher birth weights are the most effective way to reduce infant mortality. Judging from recent rates of progress, however, the United States will not come close to either its own or the U.N. summit's mortality goal by the end of the century. The nation's rate of infant deaths is still going down, but the rate of progress has become grindingly slow--in the last three years, the infant death rate, on average, fell only one-third as fast as it did each year in the 1970s.

Bush knows these trends and how to reverse them, making his silence at the United Nations all the more inappropriate. Last November, a White House task force on infant mortality produced a draft report reviewing all this information and recommending initiatives that would save at least 10,000 U.S. babies' lives and prevent disabling conditions for another 100,000 each year. The President has done nothing to move the task-force recommendations forward.

Bush should have talked at the summit about practical steps by which the United States can reach the year 2000 goals. He should have said that he would make room in the budget for the modest initiatives that are necessary. He should have told the American people that we have to start now--not in 1996 or 1999--if we want to attain these goals and not only help America's children but prepare our work force and strengthen our society. The nation needs the whole decade, not just two or four years, to reduce infant mortality by one-third. Bush is already wasting precious time.

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